In 1986, my negative review of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, written for The City Sun, the country’s most politically engaged black-owned newspaper, caused a controversy that went media-wide (this was before the phrase “going viral”). Murphy responded with full-page ad rebuttals. Even Time and Playboy reported the exchange. Since then, Murphy outgrew his early-career brashness (he walked the thin line between ignorance and insensitivity) and eventually proved himself one of the all-time great American movie actors in such rich comedies as Life, The PJs, Bowfinger, Norbit, The Nutty Professor, The Klumps, Meet Dave, A Thousand Words, and Mr. Church. His Coming to America sequel, filmed as The Quest (revealed in the blooper end-credits), confirms Murphy’s pursuit of comic excellence and represents a career peak. Despite its insipid new title, Coming 2 America deserves plaudits.
Retooling the 1988 plot about African prince Akeem (Murphy) traveling to the U.S. to find a bride, 30 years have passed. Now King Akeem, the father of three daughters, seeks his patrilineal heir via another transcontinental mission. He finds Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler), his “bastard son.” That rude phrase evokes the disintegration of black family relations as normalized by the politically correct “single parent” euphemism, but Murphy’s rude, comic epithet is necessary. It corrects several recent black pop-culture regressions.
Coming 2 America’s father-son plot obviously parodies the sanctimonious sentimentality of The Lion King (Disney’s anthropomorphic spectacles and especially Beyoncé’s patronizing Black Is King iteration). Murphy’s satire is right for this era of disingenuous race consciousness. It also rejects Black Panther’s humorless self-importance about African heritage and black governance. (A #MeToo subplot is more routine than offensive, but at least it’s acted warmly.) Each rounded character — from Arsenio Hall’s majordomo Semmi and Wesley Snipe’s greedy tribal dictator Izzy to Leslie Jones’s bodacious babymama Mary and Tracy Morgan’s wily Uncle Reem — shows the funny side of either uppity Motherland pride or vulgar urban-ghetto candor.
Restoring our lost sense of humor is Murphy’s triumph in Coming 2 America. Since 2008, the nation has been forced to view everything judgmentally as race-based, whether a private achievement or a personal offense. This manipulation worsened when the fantasy film Black Panther caricatured ethnic pride and its sci-fi comic-book nonsense was taken seriously. The Black Lives Matter generation projected their political whims upon Wakanda, a nonexistent African kingdom that was a Millennial version of faux-naïf Africa (which young Murphy once equated to Tarzan movies), seemingly unaware that, before they were born, Murphy had already proposed the country of Zamunda — and had played an African king in Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time music video.
At that time, Zamunda meant less to me than Eighties pop music by Michael Jackson, Prince, Public Enemy, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the movies Purple Rain, A Rage in Harlem, Hollywood Shuffle, and music videos that vivified the complexities of what Prince called “pop life.” But now, Zamunda’s fantasy must fight off Wakanda’s brainwashing effect. Vague ideas of “hope and change” can’t compete with Coming 2 America’s funny, refined expression of Afrocentric desire — and black self-reflection.
After the misfire of Dolemite Is My Name, Murphy and director Craig Brewer find their own comic sensibility. Murphy’s matured instincts, assisted by his longtime screenwriter Barry Blaustein and by the friendly eye of Brewer, uncover surprising details of the black diaspora. A fascinating dynamic occurs between conservative, regal Akeem and hip-hop-raised, American Lavelle. Murphy strikes his own handsome, amusing profile while Fowler recalls the suave Clyde McPhatter — two examples of African and American manners, from political ambition to showbiz polish. There are such familiar sequences as Murphy and Hall revisiting their old-men stunts at the My-T-Sharp barber shop, site of timely quips about Mitt Romney and Geek Squad–Antifa (“They want to kill everybody!”). But the movie really spins when it revives cultural touchstones: appearances by En Vogue, Salt-N-Pepa, Gladys Knight, and Morgan Freeman, whose dignity and officialdom raise the roof of the resplendent Zamunda palace. This sequence (less radiant than John Singleton’s Remember the Time video) is anchored to a genuine cultural heritage — made venerable by age and time — rather than sci-fi Afro-futurism.
Black film culture has changed since 1988: Murphy has become a sage wit, and Spike Lee epitomizes the shameless race hustling of the moment. Novice Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther suggested he was so caught up in political fashion that he could not distinguish fact from fantasy. Sadly, an entire generation followed him off the cliff. Murphy and Brewer’s affectionate comedy provides emotional sustenance about family and ethnicity (the comic cast holds promise, especially Snipes’s “Idiot Amin” despot). Coming 2 America is hilarious and sane — and that goes deeper than pretend pride. Bravo, Eddie Murphy.